Yo-Yo Ma in The Music of Strangers

Morgan Neville, fresh from his Oscar-winning documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, has crafted his most personal film to date with The Music of Strangers, a joyous account of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Neville, a musician himself, found working with “these great musicians almost a religious experience.” His devotion shows in the three and a half years of work that took him all over the globe to tell the film’s uplifting story of the power of music to speak to disparate audiences and unite diverse performers.

Ma literally grew up with music and fell into being a professional musician without having found his voice (according to the composer Leon Kirchner who was one of his Harvard professors). But he would do so through his association with the worldwide collection of upwards of 50 musicians who comprise Silkroad. A constant questioner, Ma was influenced by Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 Norton Lectures that sought a universal explanation of music. The cellist’s search for the origins of creativity took him to the intersections of cultures.

Cristina Pato

Neville focuses on Ma but also brings us the stories of several key Silkroad participants: Kinan Azmeh, the genial Syrian clarinetist, who found refuge in New York City from his country’s civil war; Wu Man, pipa virtuoso extraordinaire, who was part of the first class to enter the conservatory in China following the Cultural Revolution, and who benefitted from Isaac Stern’s historic master classes [see the 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart]; and Cristina Pato, the Galician bagpiper whose enthusiastic musicianship is contagious, and whose dog is named Yo-Yo.

Neville said after last September’s TIFF premiere that he thinks of culture as the plate the cake sits on -- it’s “the most essential thing, not just the frosting on the cake.” The Music of Strangers is prima facie evidence of that essence.

The Music of Strangers plays the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema [formerly the Bloor] from July 8 to 14.

Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma on set of Mission: Impossible as seen in De Palma.

De Palma, the indispensable documentary about Brian De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is a candid, highly entertaining and illuminating look at one of Hollywood’s longest directorial careers from the mouth of the man himself. In compulsively watchable detail, De Palma -- who considers himself “the one practitioner who took up Hitchcock’s form” -- talks about each of his 29 features, dropping one factual nugget after another. (As a child, the fledgling director saw a lot of blood watching his orthopedic surgeon father operate; later he would follow his father hoping to catch him cheating on his mother.)  Anecdotes and analysis range from camerawork and direct influences to gossip about famous actors not learning lines (Orson Welles).  

Baumbach and Paltrow seamlessly intercut scenes from 45 years of filmmaking; the comfort level among the three men (who have known each other for ten years) is key to De Palma’s ease and forthrightness as he examines his entire career.

                                  Sean Connery, Brian De Palma and Andy Garcia on set of The Untouchables as seen in De Palma.

De Palma has worked with the cream of film composers, from Bernard Herrmann (“who sees the movie and goes off and writes the score”) on Obsession and Sisters to John Williams (Williams’ 1978 score for The Fury was one of De Palma’s favourites); Danny Elfman (Mission: Impossible), Mark Isham and Ryuichi Sakamoto to seven with Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill etc). The idea for Phantom of the Paradise came from hearing a Beatles song playing as Muzak in an elevator; Paul Williams, its composer, was able to write parodies of all sorts of pop music forms. De Palma offers several insights into Ennio Morricone’s work on The Untouchables. (“Give a composer the time and space to develop the scene… the sequences inspire the composer.”)

And to think it all began when De Palma saw Vertigo at Radio City Music Hall as a teenager in 1958.

De Palma opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox June 17. Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma – also at the Lightbox – runs from June 18 until September 3 screening 25 of his feature films.

Diamond driller and sunrise over Northwest B.C.  A scene from KONELĪNE: our land beautiful.. A Canada Wild Production

Nettie Wild’s magnificent new documentary, Koneline, is a fully fleshed-out portrait of a place and its diverse inhabitants. Shot in northwestern B.C. in the region of the Stikine River and the Cassiar Mountains, it’s a film of contrasts anchored by an inclusive even-handedness that reflects the filmmaker’s mature view of her subject, a wild habitat of pristine beauty and precious natural resources that is home to the Tahltan First Nation, fishermen, miners, hunting guides and hydro workers, all of whom are in thrall to the area’s remoteness.

Northern Lights on the North West Transmission Line.                              A scene from KONELĪNE: our land beautiful.                             A Canada Wild Production.

Some are attracted by the Northern Lights, the snow-covered mountains, glaciers and the howling wolves; others by the Stikine River valley (“the Serengeti of North America”). The Tahltan First Nation elders are worried about Imperial Metals’ mine (Wild cuts from their meeting with the mining company’s supervisor and B.C. Cabinet Minister to a pristine birch grove but also pointedly shows the bonds between the elders and a young Tahltan miner who welcomes the opportunity to feed his family and the compromise that seems to be the modus operandi of everyone involved).

The ecstasy of stick gambling,                                   A scene from KONELĪNE: our land beautiful.                                   A Canada Wild Production.

A Tahltan father and son spend a day killing and cleaning a moose, then the evening playing fiddle and guitar in a dance band; a woman who hunts in the bush also makes moccasins with her husband; others fish the river as their ancestors did 8,000 years ago; and there are those whose love of stick gambling is vocation enough. A hunting guide clears 100 miles of trails and guides her pack of horses from a motorboat as they swim across a wide river to prepare for a season of 14-hour tourist-driven days of hunting.

The astounding images and the stories of the people who live within them are enhanced by Koneline’s evocative electronic score by Jesse Zubot and Hildegard Westerkamp, whose fingerprints seem to be all over the soundtrack. Known for her work as a founding member of R. Murray Schaefer’s World Soundscape Project, soundwalking -- her own environmental listening events -- and her considerable contribution to several films of Gus Van Sant, Westerkamp is able to contextualize an individual within his surroundings using an uncanny blend of natural and electronic sounds. At one point the sound of ice pellets and the wind merge into a melodious hybrid; sometimes we seem to be listening to a concerto for wind. At others, the soundtrack varies from wariness and apprehension to inspiration, intensifying Wild’s narrative.

Koneline: Landscape with Pink Sky

Koneline [Kóh - nah - lee - nah] won the Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2016  Hot Docs Canadian and International Film Festival.

Koneline: our land beautiful begins a limited week-long engagement June 10 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Bobby Rush and writer-director Daniel Cross CREDIT Ryan Mullims

 

Daniel Cross, the writer and director of the lively new documentary, I Am the Blues, believes that the blues is the root of all music. “It’s about the first-person lived experience,” he said after the film had its Canadian premiere at the recent Hot Docs film festival. At 18, he had his own experience with bluesmen when he went on a vodka run at a blues festival on the West Coast and returned with his bounty and was welcomed with open arms by a number of legendary musicians.

Now, more than three decades later, his mission to record the last of the original blues devils still working the Chitlin’ Circuit has born fruit with this joyful testament. The film is a musical journey through the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou, the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta and the moonshine-soaked BBQs in the North Mississippi Hill Country. Several octogenarians act as guides on the journey, telling the stories behind the songs and jamming on a front porch. Bobby Rush, 80ish, gets his inspiration these days while driving his car on the back roads; at seven, while he was picking cotton, he passed the time imagining himself on stage with Muddy Waters or Cab Calloway. In Chicago in the 1950s, he played behind a curtain -- white customers didn’t want to see the faces of black musicians.

Lazy Lester CREDIT Gene Tomko

Lil’ Buck Sinegal, the “Master of the Stratocaster,” plays an electric blues riff as a crawfish boil is cooking. “The blues made me and I’m making blues now,” he says before talking shop with Blues Hall of Fame member and master of the harmonica, Lazy Lester, while picking crawfish out of the bowl. Barbara Lynn, a youngster in her mid-70s joins Bobby Rush and Lester in an impromptu Stagger Lee that jumps with life. There’s a memorable moment with L.C. Ulmer just months before his death. Soul blues diva Carol Fran shows her stuff. Making music nourishes their spirit.

L.C. Ulmer CREDIT Gene Tomko

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the proud owner and operator of the legendary Blue Front Cafe, the centre of musical life in Bentonia, Mississippi, has carried on the business his parents opened the year after he was born in 1948. Bud Spires, another mouth harp virtuoso learned from his father from the age of five. That is how the blues survived.  I Am the Blues wonders if the tradition can regenerate, even as the film presents a great case for those who carry it on and Skip James, Bentonia’s most famous son, belts out Crow Jane as the credits roll.

L.C. Ulmer CREDIT Gene Tomko

I Am the Blues plays a limited engagement at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, June 3 to 9. Held over at the Bloor, it expands to Cineplex Canada Square and the Kingsway Theatre beginning June 10.

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle directs and stars in Miles Ahead, a mercurial portrait of the jazz icon Miles Davis. Cheadle’s uncanny physical transformation and convincing performance conjures up the quixotic trumpeter while the soundtrack, heavily laden with Davis’ own recordings, is a well-chosen accompaniment to the fictional plot point that is the impetus for this uncommonly good piece of cinematic entertainment.

Set in 1979, at the end of a fallow period of creativity that stretched for five years when Davis was more interested in drugs than playing his instrument, the film revolves around the stolen tape of Davis’ first recording session since his withdrawal from the scene. Issues with his record company and various unscrupulous producers get conflated with a Rolling Stone writer looking for a story, the simultaneous search for cocaine and the recovery of the tape, along with flashbacks to the 1950s and Davis’ memories of his second wife, Frances Taylor. (Her face adorned several of his album covers, including Someday My Prince Will Come -- there’s a subtle reference to it in the film.)

Emayatzy Corinealdi as Franes Taylor CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

Steven Baigelman and Cheadle’s script avoids the pitfalls of most music bio-pics by not being a bio-pic. Instead the focus is on a specific period of the subject’s life with allusions to another, all in the service of presenting the protagonist as a working musician (or a blocked one; as Davis puts it early on, he stopped playing because he has nothing to say).

The movie opens with Agharta: Prelude Part 2, slides into Kind of Blue’s iconic So What, pointedly uses Jack Johnson’s Duran as we see an old newsreel of Johnson boxing Jim Jeffries, brings commercial radio into play with a DJ and Solea from Sketches from Spain, introduces Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi) with Frelon Brun from Filles de Kilimanjaro, takes us inside the master’s dishevelled lair with Rolling Stone journalist, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), before Braden and Davis drive uptown in Davis’ Jaguar accompanied by the short, sharp, jagged sounds of We Want Miles’ Back Seat Betty. By the middle of the film’s first act, its score has already reached the heights of Clint Eastwood’s Bird, Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (which Davis himself composed in 1958).

There’s a brief flashback to Davis’ life with Frances listening to Chopin, Stravinsky and Ravel, “revolutionaries, innovators.” And a remarkable re-creation of the recording session of Gone from Porgy and Bess, working with Teo Macero and Gil Evans. As well as a brief interchange in a club between Davis and Bill Evans, with Coltrane and others performing Blue in Green from Kind of Blue, just before Davis goes outside for a cigarette and gets hassled/arrested by a racist cop.

Don Cheadle as the younger Miles Davis CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

The movie’s present is kinetic, edgy, movement-based; the flashbacks are cool and reflective. Many of the scenes were written with specific Davis tunes in mind. The scenes were shot to the music playing in the background, which goes a long way to explain the seamless integration of sound and image.

Cheadle learned to play the trumpet (with the help of Wynton Marsalis) and did so in several scenes. Even though we never hear him, it’s a big part of the actor becoming the character.

Other key elements of the soundtrack are the elusive Wayne Shorter tune Sanctuary from Bitches Brew, the uncannily contemporary Black Satin from On the Corner, the funky Go Ahead John from Big Fun, Nefertiti (which plays throughout an argument between Davis and Frances), Teo from Someday My Prince Will Come, He Loved Him Madly from Get Up With It and Moja Part 1 and 2 from Dark Magus Live at Carnegie Hall (which perfectly underscores the climactic chase scene) are other key elements of the soundtrack.

The film ends with a comeback fantasy jam, “What’s Wrong with That?,”  written by Robert Glasper, that imagines Cheadle as Davis playing in the present day with guest performers Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding and Antonio Sanchez. Cheadle sports #Social Music on his shirt, a reference to Davis’ preferred sobriquet for jazz, a term he disliked. Whatever it’s called, music has seldom been this well integrated into a movie.

Miles Ahead is currently playing at the Cineplex Varsity and VIP Cinemas.

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